New York

The English Eye

Marlborough-Gerson Gallery

The left eye seems to be winking at the young’uns while the right eye, reserved for the veterans, is gray and cataracted. The birth dates that succeed each artist’s name in this review of “The English Eye” at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, are put there to demonstrate something that daily grows more evident—just how good the kids are and how dull the old timers. Not that this situation is absolute or irrevocable. There is some pretty wretched kid-stuff, and the kids themselves will doubtless be supplanted by a next generation (cold comfort). Naturally there are figures who span the years, whose recent work appears as creditable as more youthful undertakings, but they are few. “The English Eye,” more than any recent exhibition of contemporary English art, illuminates the great rift between generations (that we too are experiencing). In terms of quality the pediatric is pitted squarely against the geriatric, and in the former’s favor. The most senile figures by far (referring to the atavistic and/or arrested character of their production) are Ceri Richards (b. 1903) and Barbara Hepworth (b. 1903). The one trusses Max Ernst plus a dozen outside sources onto stakes of Dylan Thomas poems. The other solemnly repeats her druidical oaths and cat’s cradles over and over again, like a doddering old thing, God love her. One might also mention the unspeakable boredom produced by recent Ben Nicholson (b. 1894).

Not all the old-timers can be dismissed so easily. There is the titan Henry Moore (b. 1898). His pieces, so much better than the huge limbs flung into the reflecting pools of the new Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York, still reveal an ardent formal imagination at work. His success has little to do with the fact that his figures are biomorphic in character or that their context is semi-abstract.

The double life in fact of Roland Piche’s (b. 1938) polychromed arabesques, with their intestinal and otherwise organic connotations, are merely the fancy indentured servants of Francis Bacon (b. 1909) who, like Moore in sculpture, remains one of England’s glories. The same semi-abstract fallacy subverts the work of Brett Whiteley (b. 1939), who, with Thelma Hulbert (b. 1913) and Ceri Richards, form a continuum of canvas-tickling hokum. It would appear that the best work in England today, at least as it is measured in this exhibition, is that being produced by abstract artists, particularly the prodigious sculptors Derrick Woodham (b. 1940) and Christopher Sanderson (b. 1939). Both work with geometric forms, though Woodham’s is of a more organic character. Both employ color, Woodham with a deft, Whistlerian sensitivity while Sanderson uses it to neatly contrast section against section. Both are represented by low-lying works that sprawl about the floor. Both reject the base. Both are fearfully young. May they never grow into petty panjandrums. May they be mindful of the great tastefulness already evident in their work. May they each take warning from Cyril Connolly’s “Enemies of Promise.”

Responsible work is also being shown by Peter Blake (b. 1932), a 1961 “Self Portrait with Badges,” in hard focus; Edward Burra (b. 1905), a patchy “Mixed Flowers” that retains some of the obsessional power of the work of the thirties; Paul Huxley (b. 1934), refulgent color-space related to Rothko; Philip King (b. 1934), enormous decorative motifs and simple forms which produce sculpture of singular majesty; R. B. Kitaj (b. 1932), Hofmannesque color exertions, formalized draftsmanship and abstruse collegiate games of Trivia and Minutiae; Bridget Riley (b. 1931), most chaste priestess in the service of an absolute god; Graham Sutherland (b. 1903), good natured, mature canvases evidently in the debt of Cubism yet, with all, self-respecting; Joe Tilson (b. 1928), poetic technology—inadequately represented, he may be the English dark horse; Keith Vaughn (b. 1912), serious painterly canvases, far stronger and mellow than the earlier lyrical work with which he so easily seduced young eyes.

Robert Pincus-Witten